A wise man named Matt once said that “Like a first scratch on a car, it means you can finally relax when backing into parking spaces.” I can now relax. In short, I was trained enough and on pace to finish until I made the mistake of following a group who went down the wrong trail, which I made worse thanks to my poor mapping skills. I could have handled a minor hiccup, but this was a 3-mile, 1 hour major hiccup which lead to the downfall of my race.
The Volcanic 50
The Volcanic 50K is a 50K+ (32 mile) race circumnavigating Mt. St. Helens, an active volcano located about 4 hours south of Seattle. St. Helens’ last major eruption was in 1980 although it does have a dome that has been actively growing. Except for 4.5 miles, the entire race is on the Loowit Trail. It starts in Marble Mountain Sno-Park and has about 7,000 feet of elevation gain. The Volcanic site has a great Course Description that gives the full description of the course.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it but in talking with friends Alley Kloba and Bill Sepeda who ran it last year, it was an absolute Must to do: “how many times do you get to run around a volcano?”
I drove in from Bellevue the night before and spent the night at the Lewis River Inn which is at the turnoff from I-5 and Highway 503 which takes you to the mountain. A fine hotel and if you stay there make sure to ask for a room facing the river. Grabbed a bite (Subway) on the way down and tried to stay hydrated as the next day was going to be long and hot (80+F predicted).
I had already spent the previous night at home preparing my pack so didn’t have to go through that exercise. I had a veritable smorgasbord of food. I also had the mandatory water filtration (Sawyer mini-filter and Steripen Traveler… overkill, but that’s the way I roll), jacket (Patagonia Houdini), whistle and emergency blanket (both of which came with my Soloman Adv Skin Hydro 12 pack. I love, love, love my pack. I thought I’d hate the front bottles but the 500ml soft-flasks are great and there is plenty of room even with my over-packing. My two problems with the pack are the exorbitant cost and the fact that it doesn’t come w/a bladder although it has a pocket and sleeve for one; the bladder you have to buy directly from Hydrapak. Fully loaded with water, the pack came to a ridiculous 12 pounds (someone actually brought a scale to the race to see how much he lost during the race).
I’ve learned many things from my running friends. Alley and Bill have provided some great advice including for this race in particular. One trick I learned from Alley while we were at Rainshow Running’s Gorge Waterfalls 50K was to bring along the elevation chart with the aid stations and cut-off times. I made one up, copying the chart from the Volcanic website and then adding the cut-off times (the only one being 4PM at Aid Station #4) but also adding in some Goal times. Alley is about 10-15% faster than me so I listed her times and then extrapolated out to what I thought were reasonable, conservative goals for me. This had me making Aid Station 4 at 3:30PM, 30 minutes before the cut-off. A bit close but not too concerning… or so I thought.
The Start to Aid Station 1
On Saturday morning I got up at 4:30AM, had a relaxing start, and headed out at 5AM for the hour drive to the Start. Stopped at a mini-mart in Cougar, WA for a quick drink and bathroom stop; unfortunately the bathroom ended up being a Honeybucket out back, but at least there wasn’t a line as there would be at the start.
I got to Marble Mountain Sno-Park around 6:15AM, picked up my packet and ran into Takao Suzuki, my photographer (extraordinaire) friend who was also running at about my same pace as well as Lee Newbill and Paul Nelson (amazing photographer covering this race). Went back to the car to get organized and then back to the start for the race briefing and start. After the short briefing, we were off.
The first 4 miles is nice single and double-track trail which gains 2,100′ before turning onto the Loowit trail. We turned left to go clockwise around the mountain. This is where things go crazy. I think of a trail as a clear path through the woods or over grasslands. Here, “trail” meant “Look 1/10 mile ahead, spot the pole, marker on a rock, or cairn, figure out a way to hop over the boulders to get there.” The boulders ranged from 6″ to many feet wide and tended to be pretty sharp (thanks to Bill for suggesting to bring gloves). This lasted a mile or two before turning better as we cruised into Aid Station 1 2:15 later at 9:20AM, exactly on my goal time (no, really, it was literally perfectly on my goal).
Paul Nelson, our extremely talented race photographer, was up taking photos on some of the trickier rocks. I really appreciate all the effort he took to get to the location to get a great shot.
Four images above and Cover photo by Paul Nelson http://PaulNelson.smugmug.com
Aid Station 1 to Aid Station 2
The best comment from AS1 was “it’s much easier running from here to the next aid station” and they were actually telling the truth. While it felt like I was cruising, I think the previous bit had taken a bit of a toll and in areas the trail was more half-track than single-track, fairly overgrown and it took 2 hours (11:20) to get to AS2 5.2 miles later. I was now 20 minutes past my goal time. I wasn’t too worried but knew I’d have to pick up the pace.
The race was well organized and despite my wrong turn was very well marked. I love the little orange half-cone course markers.
Aid Station 2 to …
After AS2, you immediately drop down to the Toutle River, climbing down a rope, crossing the running river, and climbing up the rope on the other side and continuing climbing another 800′. The river was a little over a foot deep at its deepest and Takao got a nice shot of me trying not to fall in.
Photo by Takao Suzuki http://Runners.Photos
Takao and I had hung together for most of the race up to this point, doing a bit of side-by-side but mostly playing leap-frog. Early conversation turned into quiet, focused racing and it was great being able to switch off and let the other push the pace a bit. It was wonderful running with Takao. Unfortunately Takao was coming off of an injury a few days before and then had a huge cramp at the river crossing. He wisely decided to head back the Aid Station and was done for the day.
I climbed up the other side of the river and headed off towards AS3. There was a range of terrain from woods, to rocky to sandy to hard-pack in and out of tons of canyons. And this is where things went wrong.
Just over a mile in, you do several long switchbacks up some very sandy hills (see picture). At the top of the hill (in the distance at the top-left of the picture) is a post which it turns out is the junction of Fairview Trail, 13.4 miles in (13.9 on my Garmin Fenix). At this point, there were 3 people directly in front of me who I followed straight down an obvious trail, not noticing there was a potential turn to the right (did I mention the trails weren’t always very trail-ish?). If I had looked to the right, I would have seen a marker but I didn’t so I plowed forward following the other 3. This was Lesson #1: Watch the course instead of the people ahead of you. Lesson #2: I brought a Turn-by-Turn instruction list which said to turn right at around that spot. I should have referred to it, although since my Garmins aren’t that accurate the location was 1/4 – 1/2 mile off from the instructions.
About a mile in from our missed turn, everyone paused and mentioned they hadn’t seen a marker in a while. We stared at the map a while and realized we couldn’t tell where we were. Comparing our elevation to the chart, it seemed like our elevation was doing the right thing but we weren’t clearly hugging the mountain. That happens during switchbacks so I wasn’t too concerned we ended up going back around 1/2 mile before deciding we had to be right and so turned around and did another mile deeper in the wrong direction. Lesson #3: If you haven’t seen a marker in a while, turn around and keep going backwards until you find one. After about a mile in the wrong direction, we finally gave up and headed back to find a marker. At this point I was worried the sweeps would have passed us and removed markers but sure enough we got back to the turn, saw the marker, and were back on course.
Where the Wheels Came Off
Unfortunately I wasn’t sure how many miles and how much time we had blown and therefore wasn’t sure if we would make the cut-offs. Looking at my chart, I knew I really had 45 minutes of extra time in the schedule to make the AS4 cut-off and I figured I was close to using that up. In reviewing my Garmin, I now know that I spent an extra hour, 3 miles, and 600′ elevation at the longest part of the course between Aid Stations, so there was already no way I could make the cut-off.
However here is where things went from bad to worse. I knew that I was going to run low on water. I carried 2 half-liter soft flasks in the front of my pack with Nuun water. I also had a 1.5L of pure water in the pack bladder. I try to just use the soft-flasks as I need the sodium in the Nuun and then consider the bladder “backup.” However I started to dip into the bladder pretty deeply as this section of the course is extremely exposed and windy and it was getting into the high-80’s to 90F. Put together, I was burning through water fast and after a few miles of being back on track I started to ration the water to just a few sips every once in a while.
Unfortunately since at the time I didn’t know how many miles I’d blown, I didn’t know how much further I was from AS3. I was thinking I had wasted 2 miles on my Garmin but it turned out to be 3 miles which means I thought I was closer to the aid station than I really was. About a mile and a half from the aid station, I was down to a last few sips of water. There was a muddy stream crossing where I dipped a bandana for my head but kept going without filtering (it really was pretty gross water). Within 1/4 mile there was another, much-clearer stream. However since I figured the AS was just over the next ridge, I didn’t stop to fill up. This was Lesson #4 as I still had 1.5 miles to go and ran out of mile about half a mile later still hoping the AS was closeby. What really made this stupid was I knew I had already missed the AS cutoff so there was little reason to not stop for 5 minutes, filter water, and leave with a full pack. But I kept thinking there was better water just ahead and perhaps they would let me continue so I couldn’t waste the time. Huge mistake. I started dragging, not just walking but walking slowly not just up the hills but even the flats. A mile later, still a half a mile from the AS, I ran into 2 other guys who were sitting on the side of the trail also out of water. They had sent a runner ahead and asked her to send someone back from the AS with water. After a few minutes of hanging out, I encouraged everyone to get moving and we slowly made our way along the trail until we met an AS worker carrying water. We kept going to AS3 and arrived around 3:45PM, 15 minutes before the AS4 cut-off, which was 4 miles and a ton of elevation away. The workers made it clear we were staying and were done for the day.
At this point I didn’t care about the DNF as my body was feeling pretty miserable. I took a couple slugs of water on the trail but headed back to the AS where I crashed on the ground and let one of the workers fill my bottles. Despite the thirst, I still Steripen’d the water from the spring (again, that’s just how I roll). I downed 2 liters of very, very cold water very, very quickly. It tasted great but soon after I started shivering, probably from too much cold water too fast. Tried to down a PB&J which tasted great but I couldn’t get down more than 1/3 before giving up.
I walked into the sun and about 20 minutes after arriving was back to feeling pretty good. My legs and body were in good shape, I had just been dehydrated. Unfortunately the workers made it clear there was no continuing. There were a couple sucky things about this. It was a 3 mile hike and 2 hour drive from AS3 to the Finish. I figured the next AS was an hour away for me and then it was a few miles hike and 15 minute drive to the finish. It wouldn’t have saved much time but it would have been an hour and a half less of sitting around waiting for the sweeps to come through.
The Long Ride Home
Once the sweeps were through, we packed up and headed the 3 miles back to the parking lot. There was a road just a mile away but a gate stopped cars from going through. Ah well. Unfortunately so many people got stopped that we only had 10 seats for the 13 people who needed to get back. There was an aid car hanging out in the parking lot which had an extra seat I squeezed into and the other 2 extras rode in the back of the pickup for the 2 hour drive back. Ugh. It was a paved, although a bit bumpy, ride back. Exchanged stories with the employee and volunteer EMS crew; really appreciate their expertise and time in being out there for the runners. Fortunately their services were not needed except to help w/an IV at the finish for a dehydrated runner. A ProBar served as a meal/snack on the way back and they had bottled water which was also much appreciated.
It was dark when we got back at 8:30PM, well after the 7PM race cut-off, but there were still spectators cheering people in. Better yet the kitchen was open and cooked me up a veggie burger, and while not sounding great when initially offered I thoroughly enjoyed a Popsicle (from a plug-in freezer onsite. What a brilliant idea!). It was getting cold so hopped in the car for the 1:15 drive back to town where a warm shower and comfy bed awaited.
Did a bit of rolling with The Stick that night and in the morning and really felt pretty good. The race did not tear me up that much, despite the 23 miles and tough terrain. I attribute much of that because I tend to putter along and enjoy the view, not pushing to go as fast as possible. I may not win, or even finish, but I will always (or at least most of the time) have fun.
Reflections and Review
This was a really hard race. It was a ton of scrambling over boulders, slogging through sand, going on ropes down and up canyons, river crossings, etc. But it was beautiful. I was trained to finish with some time to spare but not well enough to handle a major hiccup. I will train more and take my lessons learned to have a great race next year.
In looking at my Garmin course, if I had stayed on-track instead of blowing an hour and 3 miles in the wrong direction, I would have arrived at AS3 at 7:21hrs (2:21PM) just a bit behind my 2:15PM goal. I wouldn’t have run out of water so would have been in good shape to power on to the finish well before the cutoffs.
This is also a good reminder of “The Butterfly Effect,” which I first heard about in Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” in which the seemingly-inconsequential killing of a butterfly in the distant past changes the future in dramatic ways. In my case, if I had been just 2-3 minutes faster I wouldn’t have been behind the other runners and probably would have made the correct turn. If I hadn’t gone back to chat w/the photographer or if I hadn’t spent so much time at the Aid Station or if I simply pushed a touch harder on the course, I could have avoided an unfortunate ending.
Lots of lessons for me:
- Run my own race. Don’t trust/follow other people. Watch the damn course and markings.
- Every second counts. Don’t talk to the photographer. Don’t over-filter water. Don’t take too many pictures. It all adds up and when you are worried about cut-offs there is not time to spare.
- Check all batteries. Did well except camera. I wasn’t worried if it had a low battery in the camera because I always keep a spare in the case. Except this time I didn’t.
- Find some way to download a map to my phone (since no online access) and use GPS (which works everywhere) to pinpoint where you are on the map. Perhaps I could have done that on my Garmin too, but the phone would be easier to read. That would have immediately told us we were off-course. Update: For Windows Phone there is MapCache and MapCache Offline Maps.
- Don’t over-pack. I brought 3,000+ cal of food. I really don’t eat more than 250-300 cal/hr and the aid stations each had at least 100 cal of food I liked. So I could have gotten away with bringing 2,000 cal.
- Manage the pack better: I love my pack because there is lots of storage up front for food. But at AS2 after having gone through more than half of it, I should have taken the time to restock it. I would have eaten better if I had a nice variety of easy-to-access food.
- Need to plan for Sodium / hr. I know I like between 350-500mg/hr from Nuun. That means 3,500-5,000mg (yes, 3.5-5g, I get it) over the course of this race which means 10-14 Nuun tabs. I only brought a bottle of 8 and only had 6 easily accessible. I was OK until the 4 hr stretch between AS2 and AS3 and blew through my 1.5L of plain water in my bladder. If I’m drinking plain water mid-race, I should have S!-Caps (341/capsule) or something.
Thoughts for the Race Directors
- The course was well marked. Really. Well, except that one turn but that really was my fault. I *love* the little cones.
- Thank you, thank you, thank you for staying out late (8:30PM even w/7PM cut-off) and having people cheering, music playing, and food on the grill
- The volunteers were all fabulous. I would especially like to thank the workers at Aid Station 3 who brought water when we needed it, made sure we were doing OK, and held us back when we needed to be held back.
- Cutting people off at AS3 was annoying since the drive was 2 hours vs 15 minutes from AS4. It would have been great if those of us in good shape and well ahead of the sweeps could have continued to AS4.
- The sweeps at AS3 were surprised they had to continue on the course as they were hoping for replacements. Probably a good idea in the future.
- The sweeps were pretty far back from the cut-off times, arriving at AS3 at 5PM when the AS4 cut-off was at 4PM. They walked people in to AS3. It would have been interesting to see those people’s times at AS2 and perhaps adding a cut-off to each Aid Station.
- It would have been great to know where the sweeps were. Perhaps time to rent a Spot that could be communicated to the Aid Stations?
- There were only 4 spare seats in the cars at AS2 but 7 pulled runners. 2 ended up in the back of a truck bed and 1 ended up in the EMS car which just happened to be hanging out.
- There was a gate blocking the 2 miles of road to the 1 mile trail to AS3. The EMS guys were happy to open it. Both for the volunteers hauling in equipment as well as helping everyone on the way out, it would be great to get the gates open.
Details for My Training Review
Below are the stats for the run. While I was good for the first 12 miles to Aid Station 2, my nutrition went to pot getting to Aid Station 3. Just too many hours and not enough food. I knew I was hungry but I didn’t want take the time to stop and eat.
Nice, relaxing pre-race, well fed and hydrated.
- Food: 460 cal: Protein Shake (160cal), slice of Great Harvest cinnamon-chip bread (200), and banana (100)
- Water: At least 16oz of water going in
- A bit heavy on the calories coming in but I started eating 2 hours before the race so wasn’t worried.
- Weather: Cool, probably in the 60s
Start – AS 1
OK nutrition given big breakfast. Moderate uphill at beginning that I could have pushed harder.
- Distance: Actual 6.3, Fenix II: 6.85, Garmin 910xt 6.65
- Time: 2:15hrs, 9:20AM, Goal 9:20AM
- Food: 250 calories (110/hr, Low but I started High): Shot Blok (200), AS M&Ms (50)
- Water 1/2L Nuun (360mg sodium = 160/hr, low but started High)
AS1 – AS2
Felt good although ended up at the aid station much later than expected. I get the sense the aid station was actually further than marked.
- Distance: Actual 11.5 (?), Fenix II: 12.7, 910xt: 12.5
- Time: 2 hours (4:15hrs race clock), 11:20AM, Goal 11:00
- Food: 520 cal (260/hr, good) , PocketFuel Almond Butter (170), Shot Blok (200), AS M&Ms (50), Gu (100)
- Water: 1L Nuun (720mg sodium = 360/hr, good)
- Weather: in the 80’s
AS2 – AS3
A long section already (8.75 miles) in a hot, open area made worse by going off-track for 3 miles and an hour. Turned disastrous when I ran out of water and also handled nutrition very poorly. Should have readjusted fuel at AS2 for easy access and then used it. Should have filtered stream when I knew I was low, even if AS turned out to be just over ridge. Need to pay attention to nutrition over time, not nutrition between Aid Stations.
- Distance: Actual: 20.25, Lost for 3 miles, Fenix II: 23.93
- Off-Trail: 3 miles, 1 hour, 600′ elevation
- Time: 4:27 hours (8:42hrs race clock), 3:42PM, Goal 2:15PM. Extra 27 min was from me dragging last few miles.
- Food: 270 cal (60 cal/hr, barely measurable = disastrous), 1 Caffeine Gu (100), PocketFuel (170)
- Water: 1L Nuun Water (720mg sodium = 170mg/hr, very bad), 1.5L plain Water, ran out (horrendous issue)
- Need to keep the Nuun going or start carrying S-Caps.
- Weather: high 80’s to 90F.
AS3 – Finish
Couldn’t eat much at AS (PB&J) but started refueling on way home.
- Food: 1600 cal, 1/3 PB&J (100), 1 ProBar (360), Veggie Burger (400), pretzels (100), popsicle (40), chips (600)
- Water: 2+L at AS, 1/2L in ride out